Author: michaeltoy

I'm a student, researching all the important (and not so important) questions in life!

East Coast Interpolations (When the Bible isn’t quite enough)

east coast interpolations.pngOne of the first things one learns when entering into academic study of the Biblical texts is that the Bible we have now is a bit of a patchwork tapestry, beautiful on the whole but a little messy when you get up close. One contributor to this messiness is the well-meaning interpolator. Interpolations are the words, sentences, or even paragraphs inserted into the text by an editor or scribe who thought it would clarify the text. Or maybe the interpolation made the text fit their theology. Or maybe the interpolation made the text fit the context of the editor or scribe. Or maybe there was a really great story that St. John surely intended to include but probably forgot. Regardless, the Bible is filled with interpolations. Today, I was thinking, if I were to add some interpolations to match my context, what would I add? And then I slipped on some ice. And I knew. So these are my additions to the text to fit my context of wintry Fairfield County, CT.

Psalm 91:11-12
For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone
nor will you slip upon black ice.

Matthew 5:7 1/2
“Blessed are you when you slip coming out of the gym and fall on your butt, for you will receive pity from the pretty girl barely able to stifle her laughter.”

Joshua 1:8
 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful except when a blizzard swoops in and you have to cancel your date that was already rescheduled.

Romans 1:16
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek and very very last to the driver of the car going up the steep icy hill at 2 miles per hour.

Deuteronomy 8:3
God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone or the ramen noodles, beans, and bacon which was the only thing in your apartment during the blizzard, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

 

When the BCP isn’t Quite Enough

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In the back of the Book of Common Prayer we teach our confirmands that there are prayers for all occasions. There are prayers for peace, for courts of justice, for an election, for times of conflict, for knowledge of God’s creation, and more.

But there are a few things that are not in the prayer book. And with the holidays bearing down upon us, I thought I’d write up a few prayers I’ve said over the years (for myself and for others) for those who also wished there were a few more prayers in the BCP.

  1. For Finding a Parking Space at the Mall

Almighty and Glorious Christ, when you walked the earth, you also could not find a place to rest your head. Grant now that the seemingly endless circling bears fruit in finding a place to rest my Corolla. Have mercy upon me, and grant this O Lord for me first and then all others who wander looking for a place to rest. Amen.

  1. Upon Receiving a Card from Someone You Forgot to Send One To

O God our King, who hast promised to attend to our petitions when asked in your son Jesus’ name, forgive me my forgetfulness and mercifully nudge _____________ to forgive me as well. Grant me fortitude of character not to claim their letter was lost in the mail or that I lost their address. Hear this prayer O Father who grants to God’s children every good and perfect gift from above. Amen.

  1. For Entering Toys R Us Two Days Before Christmas

O Lord, I beseech thee to grant me patience and good cheer as I descend into chaos and disorder. Grant that I may recognize your face in the screaming babies, the bratty children, and the unhelpful workers. Deliver me from impatience and grinchyness, I petition O holy God. Amen.

  1. For Driving to Pick Up Your In-Laws…In the Rain

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, as I travel to the airport. Grant safety and speed on I-95 to me and all other travelers in both directions. Thank thee that it’s LaGuardia and not JFK, and remember your servant O gracious God kindly this day and hour(s). Amen.

  1. For Patience when Someone Critiques the Kids’ Pageant for Inconsistencies with the Biblical Narrative

Almighty and eternal God, illuminator of minds and giver of wisdom, grant now to Thine servant patience and fortitude when dealing with ___________. Guide me on the way of thy glorious peace, and hear O Lord my petitions. Grant that quiet confidence shall be my strength and let my hands not reach to strangle the critical rascal. Amen.

  1. For Protection from Envy of Happy Couples

God of Love and Light and Warmth, remind me that your presence is enough and that there is glory in being single. Lead my feet and my heart to the path away from envy and bitterness when observing PDA, happy couples, and warm cuddles. Assist me in thine mercy not to cry during holiday rom coms or lie to great Aunt Sally when she asks if I’m dating anyone. Amen.

Online Impersonation as Rhetorical Tool

Online impersonation is nothing new on Twitter, and the fact that a number of celebrities have “TheReal” or “Real” prepended to their twitter handles is evidence of the numerous imposters out there in cyberspace. Because of the ease in the digital world to copy/paste and easily duplicate images and text, impersonation has become easier than ever.

While impersonating trolls have spread false celebrity rumors and created mischief throughout the twittersphere, a new case of impersonation has arisen in an academic and cultural debate occurring on Twitter. Rajiv Malhotra (@RajivMessage), a self proclaimed Hindu public intellectual, has been accused of plagiarism by Richard Fox Young (@richardFoxYoung), a professor of History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary.

A self-described parody account of Malhotra first appeared in February of 2014 with the handle @RajivMassage, a play on Malhotra’s actual twitter handle, along with “Rajiv Malhotra” as the name. The picture was one of Malhotra, presumably taken from his Quora.com account. The imposter played off of accusations that Malhotra did not know Sanskrit and paid money to boost his tweets. There was a break in tweets from June of 2014 until July of 2015 when the user jumped in on the debate about the plagiarism accusations.

Yesterday, a parody account of Young appeared on the scene with the more heavily innuendo driven handle @RichardFuxYoung. Unlike Malhotra’s parody, this account features Young’s current twitter photo in addition to his name.

It will be interesting to see how the events unfold in this discussion, which has already been riddled with name calling, inflammatory remarks, and not a small amount of innuendo and highly sexualized language. The form of satire and parody is nothing new, and political cartoons and caricatures have featured prominently in propaganda wars since the time of the Reformation and continues today in new forms (such as satirical publications like The Onion or tv shows like Saturday Night Live). What will be interesting in this conversation is the way that these farcical accounts contribute to the ethos of the prominent users in this debate. Some researchers (Coleman 1999; Dyer 1995) in CMC (computer mediated communication) hold up theories of deindividuation when individuals get caught up in their group resulting in loss of self-awareness. I wonder if these imposter accounts, as satire and parody, reinforce this group categorization by portraying the opponent in a caricatured way. Since the days of the satirist Juvenal, people have noted that often there is a truth exposed in satire and parody that lies beneath the surface of cultural consciousness. Do these caricatures then in fact mirror the perception of the opposing group? In other words, while on the surface the @RichardFuxYoung account is merely a parody account, what does this parody reveal about how those in Malhotra’s camp actually feel about Young? Similarly, a close analysis of the @RajivMassage account reveals the thinking of those in Young’s camp: Malhotra is not a “real” scholar who knows Sanskrit; Malhotra uses his money to buy influence; Malhotra trivially dismisses the plagiarism accusations.

In studying responses to these false accounts and the networks surrounding them, much can be learned about rhetoric, discourse analysis, and social media. This blogpost is just the tip of the iceberg, and I am hopeful that more analysis of online impersonations will reveal more about the layers of interpersonal interaction in the digital world.

Bridges, Building, and Moments of Faith

bridge jumpingThe bridge isn’t that high. But outside of the parked car, standing on the edge looking down at the moving water, it seems a lot higher than it did from the road. Gauging height is always impossible when you’re looking down — right? — and when there are six high school students waiting for you to take that first jump. The water is plenty deep below. Kids were making this jump just yesterday. Even if you break your leg, you probably won’t drown. At least there are no sharks.

*****

People like to talk about a “leap of faith.” Whether it’s Søren Kierkegaard writing in the 19th century about the Akedah or Indiana Jones trying to find the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade, the metaphor of a leap from rational knowledge to belief is appealing. But as powerful as the image is, I am not sure a leap is a sufficient metaphor to describe the Christian faith.

*****

A dark vehicle pulled over on the bridge, a window rolled down, and a loud man’s voice called out, “Be careful – there’s something down there biting people.” In the moment that followed, our eyes met and I tried to gauge whether this was playful teasing or an honest warning. The stern injunction dissolved into a chuckle and wide grin, indicating the former. The woman sitting in the passenger seat called out, “Don’t listen to him! He’s just pulling your leg,” sensing my practically palpable apprehension. I nodded gratefully to her. A tall man with a twinkle in his eye emerged from the black truck and walked over to the edge of the bridge and peered down. Oh it’s plenty deep. His Minnesota vowels mixed with the cadence from his Native American accent in a methodical and comforting way. Kids were doing backflips off here yesterday. You’re safe. Jump on three. One…Two…

*****

Take the plunge. Make a leap of faith. Dive in. (Stephen Curtis Chapman, anyone?) But research on faith practice indicates that religious devotion isn’t defined by singular experiences. People like to point to big events (like copying a stolen library book) as powerful, swaying, and influential moments in life. And there’s tremendous cultural and narrative appeal to that kind of story. But life is made up of a stream of little decisions, and the overall shape of one’s life is the sum of those little moments, habits, and seemingly small practices (like reading a sacred text, meditation, or prayer). Faith is much more exciting and dynamic when compared to a leap. It loses some of its luster when coupled with words like “discipline,” “drudgery,” and “thoughtfulness.”

*****

Three. The river rushes up towards me. A shred of memory from high school physics flashes the rate 9.81 m/s2. As my mind gropes for the rest of the formula, everything is shut out by the shock and wonder of water surrounding my being. My feet find the bottom of the river, and I push up with a flutter kick, propelling myself to the surface. Emerging with a sputter and a couple coughs ridding the lungs of a fraction of the river-water I’ve swallowed, I call up to the rest of the waiting cohort, “The water’s fine!”

*****

Faith is a multidimensional part of life. And just one metaphor is insufficient to capture the Christian faith. Certainly, a leap captures one part of faith, but the metaphor I love for faith is construction. When building something that lasts, careful planning, meticulous design, and quality materials must be sought after. I spent the last week of July on a mission trip with 8 incredible youth and adults in Cass Lake, Minnesota (read about what we did here). As we nailed the shingles down on the roof of the White Earth tribe member, every few rows of shingles we measured both ends and the middle to ensure we were on track. And often, that’s what the Christian life is like – working hard, feeling the soreness of a bent back, and periodic assessment. Sometimes it feels like taking a plunge or making a leap. And mission trips are a reminder of the exhilaration, the joy, and the rush that comes from that leap of faith. But when we get home, we’re reminded that faith is a day-by-day activity, an activity that requires work, diligence, perseverance, and discipline.

Mad Max is the Most Theologically Important Exodus Narrative in Film

[Spoiler Alert – this review contains spoilers and depends on prior viewing of the film]

Mad Max is being appraised as a smorgasbord of brilliant special effects, stunning visuals, and second wave feminism, but these lauds I will leave in the capable hands of the critics. I want to talk about the theological implications of this film’s narrative, for Mad Max may well be the most important Exodus narrative in film thus far.

We’ve seen this story before – a group of enslaved people are abused and mistreated by an overlord, a warlord, emperor, or some other tyrant. The unlikely-but-strong savior figure emerges and leads the oppressed out of bondage into the Promised Land. This is the story of the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. In Mad Max, we find what at first looks like a repetition of this age-old plotline. In a post-apocalyptic world, the film’s eponymous protagonist, Mad Max (Tom Hardy), is a half-crazed man who ends up aiding Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) escape from the tyranny of the Citadel. The Exodus imagery is too abundant to be coincidental. The movie takes place in a desert wasteland, and though the escapees never refer to a “Promised Land,” they refer to a “green place” – an oasis and refuge from the tyranny of oppression and from the barrenness of the scorched earth. In a subtler hue, one of the defecting soldiers reveals that he is afflicted by boil-like lumps on his skin and lives under the threat of death by night fever. In another scene, we see a locust crawl across his skin. While not outright references to the ten plagues, these three taken together make it impossible to claim this is not an allusion to the plagues of the Egyptians. While stopped to do maintenance on their escape vehicle, one of the women cries out to the distant tyrant to forgive her and urges the others to return to their enslaved life. This incident echoes the Israelite’s constant complaint against God and Moses that they were better off in Egypt than wandering through the wilderness. When the “chariots” of the tyrant are in heavy pursuit of the escapees, they flee into a sand storm, where a wall of sand rising up on their left obliterates one of the pursuing vehicles. While this passage echoes the Scriptural description of the Israelite journey through the Red Sea, safety is not yet achieved and the pursuing army is not yet obliterated.

With these allusions and the basic plot structure of the movie, I was expecting a retelling of the Exodus story, only set in a post-apocalyptic world with stunning special effects. What I didn’t expect was that the explosions and the visual imagery is accompanied by a theology that acknowledges the shortcomings of Exodus appropriation and supplements it with a rich apocalyptic theology.

The Exodus narrative has been a powerful inspiration to many cultures in a variety of settings. In the U.S. the Exodus story was taken up both by white settlers seeing America as a Promised Land free from old European structures and impositions, and also by black slaves identifying with the not-yet freed Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians. This latter interpretation has been lifted up by liberation theologians to describe God as particularly concerned for the oppressed, a liberator, and one who delivers the poor from the powers, structures, and tyrants keeping them down. The problem this interpretation runs into is the unfortunate fact that the next episode in the saga of the Israelite journey to the Promised Land is the extermination and genocide of the people already living in Canaan. The genocide of the Canaanites prevents the narrative theology to move forward, for while affirming the unique particular love of God for the Israelites, streams in the Bible also acknowledge the love of God for all people. Some have thus wondered if the Exodus story is a dead end in liberation theology as it leads to a conquest narrative that displaces and exterminates the Canaanites, leaving no place in God’s kingdom for them.

Mad Max acknowledges the shortcoming of the Exodus narrative and pushes through towards a new ending to the traditional story. After escaping the territory of the tyrants, the escapees realize that their Promised Land has been destroyed and is not the place of refuge they had imagined. They prepare to cross a salt wasteland on motorcycles with enough supplies for 160 days (40×4) and no idea what lies ahead of them. Thus far we have seen a relatively faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative: there is a tyrant who enslaves his people, the people escape the pursuing armies, and the people prepare to wander through wilderness in search of a new promised land. And this is where the narratives diverge, for the escapees turn back. The fugitives (aided by a dramatic and terse Tom Hardy) realize that the only way to find life is by returning, overthrowing the tyrant and redeeming their home.

And this is the interpretation of the Gospel that takes into account the full account of the Scriptures. I was sitting in Central Park the other day speaking with a friend about one of her sermons on Isaiah (43). At the center of this chiasmic passage is the assertion that God loves Israel and they are precious in God’s sight. However, also in this passage is a statement about how God will hand over Egypt and other nations to suffering in order to ransom Israel. Clearly, Egyptians would hear this passage very differently from Jews (or anyone hearing this passage who was not from Egypt, Ethiopia, or Seba). And that is the fundamental problem with the Exodus narrative – some people groups are excluded and cast out from the kingdom of God. But in this same book in Isaiah (19), we know there is a bigger story. We know that the God will bring all nations to God’s self, including Egypt.

This is the gospel. All things will be made new. All people will be brought before God. The Greek term apokatastasis is used to indicate this renewal of all things as all of creation is redeemed. Mad Max acknowledges that the world is broken, some powers need to be challenged and even removed. But even the oppressors are not without a need for redemption. When they arrive back at the place of captivity, the Citadel, it is the young boys being bred for war that lower the drawbridge and raise them back up into the city. The oppressing people, without their tyrannical leader, are offered redemption. The narrative of the film does not downplay the importance of the role of the oppressed, the differently abled, or those struggling through psychological trauma. But in the end, it is not just these who are saved, but they lead the whole of the people, oppressed and oppressors, into redemption.

In this retelling of the Exodus narrative, the particularity of the oppressed is highlighted, but in the end, the change in structure and power affects all people. And this is the way forward in using the Exodus narrative theologically – the story does not end with deliverance from oppression and bondage. The story continues until all people, including the oppressors, are included in the kingdom of God.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

“I wonder, what difference does this make in your life, Michael?” This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot as I am now thoroughly underway in my last year at Princeton Theological Seminary. It weighed especially heavily on me on Sunday as I left church, where my Sunday School class was challenged to think about how the Psalms and the Bible in general were incorporated into their lives. Could I, in good conscience, tell all these young adults to read the Bible, to pray, and to memorize Scripture? What difference does all of this make? Does this even make a difference in my own life? I could not shake this question on the hour-long drive to Philly, where I was meeting someone for brunch. Then, as often happens, the coffee, breakfast burrito, extra potatoes on the side – and sitting across the table from a really attractive person – made me forget this crisis of existence, faith, and religion. (And for those keeping track, it was Not drunk brunch. Alcohol did not aid this time in forgetting my troubles.)

As I was driving home, I remembered that I had to get prizes for a game at youth group that night. The need to purchase the chocolate prizes, combined with my gas light turning on (for those of you on the revised common lectionary, yes, this was last Sunday when we read the gospel passage about the ten bridesmaids, five of whom ran out of oil), prompted me to swerve out of the exit lane from I-95 to 206, settling for the long way home. Mostly because I didn’t want to have to make any left turns and minimize clover leafs.

While my GPS freaked out and kept babbling, “Recalculating…Recalculating…Recalculating,” I cruised down Route 1 toward Trader Joe’s. On the side of the road, there was a car pulled over with the hazards blinking, and about 20 yards down the road, there was a woman walking with a gas can. And then I drove right past her and parked at Trader Joe’s.

I got out of my car and looked across the highway at the gas station on the other side of Route 1, across six lanes of traffic and a median concrete barrier. Apparently, the woman with the gas can also saw the gas station, because she stood on the opposite side of the highway looking for a break in the traffic. And at this point I found myself walking towards her. Since it was a highway, there was no break in the traffic. And so the woman’s efforts to run across the highway were thwarted, and I was right behind her before she heard me yelling, “Excuse me, Miss, do you need a ride?” It was kind of hard to be heard above the roar of car after passing car.

After we went to the gas station, (I gave in and made four clover leaf turns by going to the gas station before Trader Joe’s, but who’s counting?); and after her profuse thanks; and after her tearful story of how she had just come from Philly saying goodbye to her children before leaving to spend the holidays away from them for the first time; and after she swore I was sent by god; and after I dropped her back off at her car; I went back to Trader Joe’s for my chocolate.

And I wonder. I wonder if, contrary to the gospel reading, maybe those with oil will lend their oil to those without. I wonder if the woman had been white if someone would have stopped for her. I wonder if someone would stop for my mom if she ran out of gas. I wonder how many cars passed her as she walked along the highway with that empty gas can. I wonder if there is a god above who sent me to her. And still, I continue to wonder: What difference does this make in your life, Michael?

Preaching to a Foodie Generation

pastaWhat Foodies Taught Me About Sunday School
(No this is not about the Eucharist)

“The goal of weekly Sunday sermons is not to provide your congregation with every spiritual resource they need for the rest of their lives– it’s to sustain them til the next week. Just like every meal need not be a festal cornucopia, so too, the goal of each sermon is to sustain the parishioner til the next meal.”

These words from one professor were about weekly Sunday sermons, but I have found them to be profoundly applicable to the process of preparing weekly Sunday school lessons as well. A large chunk of my summer has consisted of designing and writing middle and high school Sunday school curriculum for my church, and I’ve found application for this thought to my summer task. The professor intended to communicate a release from stress and to take pressure off the weekly sermon. The sermon is not the fullness of God incarnate in 15 minutes worth of words. The sermon is not three years worth of seminary study compressed like one of those prank spring snakes in a can. The sermon is not Charlton Heston (or soon to be Christian Bale) delivering the verbatim word of God from Mt Sinai saying, “Thus saith the Lord…” The sermon is none of those things. In the same way, Sunday school is not intended to be a complete and exhaustive transference of Biblical knowledge in one fifty minute lesson.

I understand that. But I think there is additional insight to be gleaned from this metaphor. Thinking of the sermon or Sunday school lesson as a meal is a comparison that sheds light on ways to reach my millennial generation. My generation, dubbed by many as the millennial generation, is a foodie generation. By that, I mean that people approach food as an experience and something more than just something to be consumed out of convenience or hunger. Food is seen (and tasted) as so much more than mere sustenance. Each meal is an opportunity to try something new, to expand one’s palate, and to experience food in a spectacular way. So what does this have to do with church?

I think that the metaphor that my professor used holds true. A Sunday school lesson isn’t meant to be a feast or a banquet overflowing with protein, carbs, and sugars. But at the same time, this generation of sermon hearers is expecting something that will expand their palates, deepen their appreciation for food, and give them an experience of something new, enriching, adventurous, or exciting. So how can a preacher or teacher deliver an acceptable weekly sermon to a generation of foodies who constantly crave something complex, deep, and delicious?

First, we must reexamine our menus. By menu, I mean the overarching architecture and content of the weekly lessons. When I first started teaching middle school Sunday School, the first thing I wanted to do was to make it all about fun. As you can guess, that didn’t work very well. Structure and content are necessary for a successful classroom experience for teacher and students. During a curriculum retreat at my church this past spring with Sunday school teachers and our education committee, we envisioned a curriculum for our youth that was two pronged. Sunday mornings we would be covering stories from the Bible, hitting most books over a three-year cycle. Sunday mornings would be spent examining our identity as an Episcopalian, part of the Anglican tradition, and a member of the broader Christian community. We worked as a group to put together an outline for the books and stories we’d tackle over the next three years. We wanted to create a curriculum with meaningful and engaging content. We would have fun along the way, and we would build up self-esteem along the way, but the primary focus was on knowledge and application of the Bible to our students’ lives. As Gary Vaynerchuk says in his book on social media advertising, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, no matter how good the presentation of information is, content is king.

 

Second, we must reexamine our ingredients. Chefs who create meals to meet the standards of the foodie palate know they can pick only the best ingredients. Once we figured out the “menu” or overarching architecture of our Sunday school curriculum, it was time to pick the ingredients, the basic building blocks that would fill each lesson. In this stage of curriculum writing, my priest and I worked together to pick out stories from the Bible that would best synecdochally represent the book or genre on our menu. Part of the goal was to teach stories that are referenced repeatedly in literature, movies, and other forms of (high and low) culture. Additionally, we wanted stories that opened the door to discussions of the hard questions in Scripture, that raised hermeneutical questions, and that provided a relevant spiritual resource for our students’ lives. This was difficult to say the least. With every decision to include a certain story or passage, our null curriculum grew ever bigger. (The null curriculum is what is left out of a curriculum. That which is not said.) But unless you’re Dagwood, you can’t fit everything on a sandwich. And so we trimmed down our curriculum to manageable chunks, finding stories that represented the book (or group of books) in our menu and also emphasized Biblical themes that are important in our Episcopal tradition.

Third, we had to think about our pairings. Every foodie worth his or her salt knows that a single dish can be a great thing on its own, but a pairing can bring out flavor profiles and complexity that is simply magical. For us, pairing was a necessity. In education classes, we talk about the “zone of proximal development,” or ZDP for short. This is the set of information that students can connect to previous knowledge, allowing them to retain and make meaningful sense of the material. In order to activate the previous knowledge, we turned to examples from popular culture, literature, and other resources. For example, for a lesson on the crucifixion, atonement, and justification, I turned to Les Mis, Beauty and the Beast, and Schindler’s List for clips to help explain the manifold dimensions of the world-changing event on Calvary.

Fourth and last, we must reexamine our presentation. Growing up, I always thought presentation was overrated. And perhaps that prejudice is still dominant, as I put that last on my list. But it is important. In a sermon or Sunday school lesson, the presentation is not a static, fancy toothpicked garnish in a tiny bite of meat-I’ve-never-heard-of. The presentation is delivered by a living, breathing person. This is key. The teacher plays a powerful role in the entire leaning process. Even with the best curriculum, the best ingredients, and the fanciest recipes, if the chef is sub par, the entire meal will be a disaster. The content must be presented in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, palatable, and in digestible chunks (chunks actually is a term we use in education classes). The teacher is in control of all of this.

Of course there is more to be said about all of this. Technology in the classroom, homework, research, and reaching students of all abilities are topics I’ve considered in writing this curriculum, but there I’ve already breached my 1000 word limit for these posts, so we’ll call it quits for now. So the next time you’re preparing a sermon or Sunday school lesson, I hope that you find great ingredients and don’t forget to consult your cultural sommelier.

Christian Dating in the Evangelical Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship

Let's read the story of Adam and Eve so I can sit metaphorically and literally  higher than you.

First hit when Googled “Christian Dating”

 

Christian Dating In the Evangelical Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship.

 

A friend sent me this article: Dating in the Hook-Up Culture: 10 Weird and Confusing Stages of the Modern Relationship, recently published on elitedaily.com.  While not completely accurate of my dating misadventures, it’s pretty close.  In fact it describes to a T the shape of the dating scene for many of my friends.  Well, many of my more “worldly” friends.  I have dear friends from Texas and Wheaton that are quite conservative and firmly believe in a Christian outlook on dating.  For them, I have written this short post about the weird and confusing stages in modern Christian relationships.

 

1. Praying for Future Spouse

We’ve all heard these prayers.  Equal parts “fleshly” desperation and authentic spiritual earnestness, they usually go something like this, “Dear God, I just pray right now for my future spouse.  God, I don’t know what he looks like, but probably like Hugh Jackman.  Just keep him safe and healthy and herpes-free. And just, God, keep his soul pure, and his hands, God, off that slut’s boobs. Amen”

 

2. The Testimony Sharing

It always starts innocently enough.  Or at least it has to seem that way.  Your close friends have known you’ve had a crush on that someone for a while now, and you finally have the guts to do something about it.  So you ask them nonchalantly to share their testimony or their story.  You don’t really care about their story, and will probably not remember most of it as you’ll sit there leaning forward nodding intently and trying not to be distracted by the dreamy eyes or low cut shirt.  While walking out the door, the interested party suggests, “Hey it was great to hear your story.  Do you want to get coffee sometime?  I’d love to hear more about what God’s doing in your life.”  This is a lie.  You want to put your tongue in their mouth.  But you will listen to what they say about what they perceive to be God’s work in their life to get there.

 

3. The Coffee Date

The coffee date is arguably the most important stage in this awkward and confusing, fledgling not-yet-relationship.  This is where you have to pull out the conversational skills and show that you can talk about something other than yourself, which is what the testimony time was all about.  Sometimes this stage can last three to four “chats.”  We’ll call them chats because no one is certain whether or not it’s a date even though he pays, and one or both is telling all their friends they think it’s a date.

 

4. Shameful Confession Time

This stage might involve alcohol, but most of the time, (weirdly) it doesn’t.  This is the stage where one somehow, following some unspoken rule, gets super emotional and shares insecurities, fears, and perhaps past sins (like eating disorders, pornography addictions, not being rooted daily in the Word, etc.) or what Evangelical Christians like to call “struggles.”  If the relationship is to move forward, this confession time results in some crying and hug time accompanied by some light petting and maybe a cheek kiss.

 

5. Outsourcing Prayer to your Small Group

But after the confessional time, one starts to get second thoughts.  One thinks to oneself, “Can I really date a non-Virgin?  Can I see myself dating someone who wears jorts?”  So one decides to give it over to Jesus.  And one’s small group.  Here, the small group/cell group/prayer group is asked to pray for the budding relationship.  “God, we just ask that you just give Niki discernment, and forgiveness, God, for the things that Taylor has done, and we just ask, God, that you bless them and help them, God, just follow you.”

 

6. The Makeout (and Subsequent Shame)

Feeling more confident and Spirit-filled after the prayer session, one realizes that they want to put the other’s tongue in their mouth more than they care what the other person did in the past.  So they makeout.  And then feel bad about it.  The thought process goes something like, “We’re not boyfriend/girlfriend yet…we haven’t really committed to each other yet…oh God-I-mean-gosh, what if we don’t get together?  Did I just commit adultery?”  This sexual guilt leads into stage seven.

 

7. The RDT

The famed RDT: the relationship defining talk.  If one can struggle through the blundering awkwardness of the RDT, then one is ready to be in a relationship.  Key words and phrases include: take things slow, glorify God, facebook official, and lots of use of the word Love but never in an “I love you” way.

 

8. The GF/BF label

Now the couple lives into their BF/GF status.  Going on dates, not dating other people, or even looking at other people, really.  Gotta bounce those eyes to stay pure.

 

9. Feeling guilty after getting past first base

Almost inevitably, despite the best intentions, a make out session will get hot and steamy, things will get out of control, and the “flesh” will get the better of a couple.  Whether this manifests itself in some under-the-shirt groping or below-the-belt ministrations, the couple crosses a spoken (or unspoken) line.  And then they feel guilty about it.  Here they either break up, or decide to move on to the next level.

 

10. Marriage

After tears and praying for God to restore one’s “spiritual virginity” by reversing the effects of that late night boob grab, the man buys the ring, gets down on one knee, and the rest is documented by a photographer who is not that great but goes to one of their churches and spot colors the bridesmaids’ dresses in post processing.

 

My Recent Breakup

As some of you know, I experienced a break up at the start of this summer. Or to use the terms we decided on, we’re “taking a break.”  Most of you didn’t know that I was in a serious relationship.  Not that I wasn’t public about it, or that I tried to keep it any kind of secret.

But for the last two weeks, I’ve been on a break from alcohol.  I know, those of you whom I haven’t told are probably gasping in disbelief.  Y’all thought it was true love, everlasting, til the end of time.

But, for now, I have cut things off with beer, whiskey, wine, gin, vodka, tequila, and rum.

I won’t go into details on why we decided to take a break, out of respect for the privacy of alcohol.  But for now, we’re on a break, and I’m embarking on “sober summer.”  What I do want to talk about is Christian freedom, cultural morality, and self-discipline.

This past school year, I tried to pull a Johnny Cash and walk the line.  I should have learned from the Joaquin Phoenix movie in 2005 that never works out.  But I was probably distracted by how cute Reese Witherspoon is.  (Coincidentally, here is my June, helping me get sober.)

In a recent blog post, Richard Beck, writes about post-evangelical Christians and alcohol.  He notes two ways that Christians who were raised in a more conservative evangelical environment are prone to treat alcohol.  The first is that drinking alcohol becomes a big, emotional and reactionary F-you to the past, a sign of some unresolved pain and anger at one’s past.  The second is that it becomes a sign of superiority.  “When you drink you signal that you are more enlightened than those conservative Christians with bad atonement theology.”

I can relate to both of these, and I think my heavy drinking stems in part from both of these.  But there is another dimension of my relationship with alcohol that is perhaps unique to me.  I’m good at drinking.  I can drink five drinks in a night and wake up with little to no hangover.  I live within walking distance of the bar, and so I’ve never been behind the wheel after excess alcohol.  I day drink and still manage to do fine academically.  In fact, in what was perhaps the darkest semester with depression and alcohol, I managed to get all A’s.  A feat I haven’t accomplished since high school.  In fact, most people who don’t know me well, would probably have no idea the amount of alcohol I consumed.  (Or maybe everyone does, and I just am woefully underequipped at gauging others’ perception of me.)  But the point is that I drank because I could.  I hate psychoanalysis, so I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself and try to find some deep-rooted insecurity or superiority complex to explain it, I’m just telling you what I know for sure.

I could walk that line.  Sure, I slipped a few times into some not-classy behavior.  (Some of those stories will come up in my reflections on a year and a half of online dating.)  But for the most part, I could walk the line and survive, even thrive.

So, Michael, if you are so good at drinking, why break up?

That’s a great question.  Part of it is physical health.  (In the past two weeks I’ve lost 10 pounds!)  The other part of it is that complex emotional-psychological thing that I’ll call spiritual health.  Fasts and breaks are good things.  In fact, in unsubstantiated and shallow exegesis, I would argue that Paul says that occasional breaks from sex within marriage can be a good thing.

So for now, alcohol and I are on a break.  For those of you who are wondering, we’re still friends.  We can be in the same room without tension or awkwardness.  We’re just not going to bed together like we used to.  Maybe one day we’ll get back together. Maybe it was just timing.  We’ll see.  But I’m doing great.  I miss alcohol, but not enough to tempt me to get back together right now.

Dear alcohol, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing okay.  I only want the best for you.

YOLO…unless you’re Lazarus

Sermon Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Princeton 4.6.2014
Text: John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

We’re in the fifth week of Lent! Almost there. We’ve almost made it.  But we’re not there yet.

The gospel reading is an incredible literary work.  (And a long passage.)  This unit comes as a summative capstone to the first half of the book of John, called the Book of Signs.  In the first half of his gospel, John describes seven signs revealing the divine and messianic nature of the character of Christ.  Here in this final sign, we have Jesus pronouncing that he is the resurrection — that all who live and believe in him will never die.  Then he proves this claim has a bearing in the here and now, this physical world by raising Lazarus from the dead.  In this story, Jesus also shows his humanity, in verse 35, we are told, “Jesus began to weep.”  Jesus is not some empty shell of a human that does not feel emotion.  He indeed is able to suffer grief, and he grieves for the death of his friend.

But as great as this story is in its literary beauty, its symbolism, and narrative impact, the story leaves a lot of questions when considered in light of our modern situation.  That’s great that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Fantastic.  But, like Martha, I am quick to say, I know that this means that at the end, the eschaton, when Jesus returns, then all will rise again in Christ.  I want to categorize it as the same kind of prophetic vision that Ezekiel has of the dry bones.  This isn’t something that’s going to happen now, but it will happen at the end of time.  Or it’s just an allegory for receiving spiritual life.  So what bearing does this story have in our lives today?  Is it just to inspire us to hope in the future resurrection?  To give us hope in an afterlife?

Why did Jesus choose to heal Lazarus?  Why did Jesus choose not to raise others?  Sure Jesus loved Lazarus, but doesn’t Jesus love other people, too?  What about my friend Alex who drowned in the summer before my sophomore year of college?  He loved Jesus, and I’m sure that Jesus loved him.  What about those on the Malaysia Flight 370?  Some of you may know that last April I was blocks from the finish line at the Boston marathon, watching my dad cross only four minutes before the bombs exploded.  My dad was fine, but what about Martin William Richard, the eight year old boy, who almost one year ago died in the Boston marathon bombing?

Where was Jesus then?  I, like Martha, want to accuse God, saying, I know that if you, Jesus, had been here, these would not have died.  But they did die.  And Jesus has not raised them from the dead.  So where is this resurrection and life.  Do we only get to experience the hope in a future resurrection at the end of time?

Where is God now?  And I’m going to be honest.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers.  But I do have some ideas.

A few years ago, my family went with several other family friends to go skiing in Colorado.  And while we were there, one of my good friends, John, was tubing down a mountain, lost control, and hit his head on a tree.  One of the dads who was there was a police officer and a trained EMT, and when he checked for signs of vitals, he found none.  The ambulance came with the paramedics, took John away, and the rest of us sat and prayed.  Later, we got a call from John’s parents at the hospital that John had strong vitals and was even awake.  He had suffered memory loss and a severe concussion, but he was alive.  I don’t know what qualifies as a miracle.  I can’t definitively say that I know that God was supernaturally at work here.  But what I can say is this: I thought my friend was dead, and now he lives.

There are lots of stories like that in my life.  Not very many are quite as dramatic.  But all the same, like the man born blind in last week’s scripture, where I once saw darkness and death, I now see light and life.  Sometimes you have to look hard.  Sometimes the light is dim.  But I think it’s there.

And that’s the message for us from today’s Scripture.  Is God going to raise everyone we love from the dead?  Not immediately.  But sometimes God does act in this world.  God has not abandoned us.  Throughout life, if we have eyes to see, we can see the glimpses of these Lazarus moments where God acts in surprising ways, revealing the presence of God’s kingdom here in our world.  And sometimes there are seasons in our life where those moments are hard to see.  Or it seems like those moments aren’t there to see at all.

And though it may seem like God doesn’t care, though it may seem like God is not present, this story tells us that Jesus does indeed care.  Jesus weeps over the death of his friend.  He enters into mourning with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.  Jesus’ heart breaks over the deaths of the ones he loves.  And Jesus’ heart breaks over the loss, destruction, and death at work in this present darkness.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  Sometimes the life we find in Christ is physical, psychological, or spiritual life, healing and strength in our personal lives.  But sometimes, for whatever reason, we don’t see God’s healing presence immediately at work in certain situations in our lives.  I don’t have the answer to that.  I can’t tell you that there’s some meaning in your suffering.  I can’t tell you there’s meaning in death.  I will not tell you that your loss is for the glory of God.  I don’t know why it seems Jesus absents himself and lets death overtake the ones we love.  I can’t tell you why we have to wait for the final resurrection for perfection and paradise.

But what I can tell you is this: Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  There will be a day when all suffering will end.  There will be a day when life will reign into eternity and light will completely overtake darkness.  But that day is not here.  And while we wait, we do not have a distant God who does not understand our suffering, but we have a God who mourns with us the deaths of our loved ones. We have a God who weeps over the deaths of friends.

And it is to this God, who weeps with us in our suffering, that we pray for light and life.  I am not satisfied with the darkness in this world.  And neither is God.  Therefore let us pray for God’s kingdom to increase here in our world, and work together as bearers of light and life, trusting in the resurrection and life of Christ our Savior.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.